Is there a more perfect example of comfort food than homemade meatballs? I like to enjoy mine drenched in sauce with a bowl of spaghetti, and could not imagine a more singular pleasure.
However, meatballs aren’t always quite so perfect. When meatballs go wrong, they aren’t much more than meat-flavored styrofoam: crumbly, too dry, and flavorless. Not exactly the centerpiece of an idyllic dining scene.
Attaining perfectly moist, well flavored meatballs is within everybody’s reach. By mastering just a few simple kitchen techniques, you can ensure that you come out with perfect meatballs every time.
Usually when meatballs come out as monstrosities, it’s due to one of these common errors. Here, we’ll discuss some of the common mistakes and how to fix them.
- You don’t use good meat. Repeat after me: to make great meatballs, you must use great quality meat. The meat is the primary ingredient, and the better the quality, the better the outcome will be of your finished dish. In an ideal world, you’d purchase your beef from a trusted, local source.
If this isn’t possible due to geographical or financial constraints, there are ways to make sure you get the best quality meat at the supermarket, too. Be sure to choose the ground beef or meat that is the most pink or red; avoid meat with brown or grey spots.
- Your meat is too lean. Fat = flavor. Sure, it’s understandable that you might want to keep your meatballs lean, but if they’re too lean, they will be bland and may overcook easily.
While you don’t have to use the absolute fattiest cuts of meat, a little fat goes a long way in terms of tender texture and superior flavor. I like to use ground beef that has about 25% fat (or you may see it as “75% lean”).
You can also make a mix of a lean meat (such as lean beef or even ground turkey) with a richer, fatty meat, such as veal, with great results. Many recipes for meatballs call for a melange of meat, including beef and pork, for a full flavored finished result.
- You don’t believe in seasoning. Without seasoning, your meatballs are…well, just balls of meat. Or small, round hamburgers. To make them classic meatballs, you’ve got to add seasoning. First and foremost, salt is vital. Bon Appetit recommends 1 teaspoon of salt per pound of meat as an ideal ratio.
Herbs are also key to making flavorful meatballs. Basil, oregano, and parsley are classic, but you can go a little bit adventurous, too. A touch of rosemary or sage can make for memorable, crave-worthy meatballs. Consider how you’ll be serving the meatballs, and consider spices or herbs that will complement the finished dish.
- You add too much egg to the mixture. More egg will add more moisture, right? Not quite. The role of the egg in meatball recipes isn’t as an agent of moisture. The egg’s key role is to act as a binder, helping the meat, bread crumbs, and flavorings stick together.
Too much egg, therefore, is not a good thing. It will make your meatballs spongy and over-absorbent (in a bad way), so that they run a high risk of being soggy and too heavy.
As a general rule of thumb, one to two eggs per pound of meat should do the trick. If your recipe calls for more egg than that, beware.
- You’re too heavy on the breadcrumbs. Bread crumbs help give meatballs their unique texture and bulk. But too many bread crumbs and you’re left with what taste like meaty matzoh balls. Don’t overdo it.
About half a cup of breadcrumbs per pound of meat should suffice in most recipes. Be sure that the breadcrumbs are fairly finely crumbled, too–you don’t want to find crouton-like bits in your meatballs.
- You overmix the ingredients. Don’t overmix! Personally, I despise when recipes say this, because I’m not always sure what that means. How can you tell if your mixture is over or under-mixed?
When it comes to meatballs, a good way to make sure you don’t overmix is to skip the machinery and use your hands (or at least a wooden spoon) to mix all of the ingredients together. This way, you’ll be able to see the mixture come together, and you’ll be quickly able to stop mixing once everything looks cohesive.
- You don’t roll properly. What? There’s a proper way to roll a meatball? In fact, yes. There are two key tips, but don’t worry, they’re easy.
First, be sure to lightly wet or oil your hands. This “lubrication” will form a barrier that keeps the meat from sticking to you and keeps it in meatball form.
Second, don’t roll your meatballs too tight. You want to lightly roll them between your hands to form a ball that feels like it will hold together, but you don’t need to firmly back it into a too-tight unit; you want it to remain light and slightly absorbent so it can absorb sauce or other flavorings.
- You don’t brown the meatballs. This is important: you must, simply must, sear the meatballs. Briefly cooking the meatballs in a very hot pan until they’ve formed a slightly crisp seared “crust” not only brings out the flavor of the meat, but it helps seal in moisture.
Just worry about browning them–you don’t have to worry about cooking them through if you will be adding them to a slowly simmering sauce, which will finish the job in 20 minutes or so.
- You don’t let the meatballs rest in the sauce. You wouldn’t be doing yourself a service if you simply seared the meat, soaked it in sauce, and called dinner done. Once you’ve seared the meatballs and added them to the sauce, let them slowly simmer. As noted above, the slow cooking will effectively “braise” the meatballs, finishing the cooking process.
The flavor will also benefit from a slow simmer. This gives the meatballs time to absorb the flavors of the sauce, which will infuse them with flavor.
Conclusion: Once you’ve incorporated these simple tips into your meatball cooking method, your results are bound to show a marked improvement. And once you’ve honed the art of meatball-making, you’ll have a delicious go-to dish for life.
How do you like your meatballs: with spaghetti, or served another way?